Power Play

Forklift Danceworks Founder and Artistic Director Allison Orr premieres her electrifying and intriguing PowerUP.

From gondoliers to dogs and their owners, Austin choreographer Allison Orr has persuaded the unlikeliest of folks to collaborate with her. Now Orr’s back at it again with another concept-busting dance performance. This time, the founder and artistic director of Forklift Danceworks has enlisted the people that keep our lights on and our AC running—the employees of Austin Energy.

And let’s not forget their machinery. The world premiere of PowerUP will feature bucket trucks, cranes and field trucks, plus a set of 25 utility poles, as w ell as a cast of more than 50 linemen and electrical technicians. This vast ensemble struts their stuff in the dramatic shadow of Austin’s Decker Power Plant on the grounds of the Travis County Exposition Center. In one of Forklift’s most ambitious projects to date, the crew from Austin Energy will showcase movements from their typical work day before a live outdoor audience of 6,000 people, set to an original score by award-winning Austin musician Graham Reynolds, lit by lighting mastermind Stephen Pruitt and accompanied by a string orchestra led by Austin Symphony conductor Peter Bay.

PowerUP isn’t Bay’s first encounter with Orr. In 2012, she created the critically acclaimed Solo Symphony—billed as “a dance for Peter Bay”—based on the movements Bay makes while conducting. A solo performance is one thing. A live event involving heavy machinery is quite another—especially as there will be only one opportunity for a full dress rehearsal before the public performances.

“I think it’s kind of extraordinary how it all comes together,” says Orr.

That said, the team of Orr, Reynolds and Pruitt have worked closely together for months preparing for the event.

“We’re strategizing and solving problems as we go along, so we don’t have any surprises on the night.”

The Austin Energy workers are not the first City of Austin employees to have their inner performer coaxed out of them by Orr. In 2009, Orr premiered The Trash Project, a dance with employees, trucks and trash cans from the City of Austin Sanitation Department. An encore performance in 2011 drew an audience of more than 4,000. Trash Dance, an award-winning documentary from Austin filmmaker Andrew Garrison, captured Orr’s incredibly detailed two-year process of creating The Trash Project and her ability to showcase the human dignity of the performers.

The same close observation of everyday tasks has been at the core of creating PowerUP, with Orr and her team again shadowing and getting to know the Austin Energy employees for nearly two years. Orr has toured substations, learned the intricacies of just how electricity is relayed, ridden up in the cherry picker–like bucket we’ve all seen on the back of utility trucks , and attended linemen’s climbing school, learning to climb (and safely fall off ) a utility pole as she went. Orr is inspired by the Austin Energy employees’ commitment and passion for their work.

“These technicians and linemen are true cowboys—people who are willing to do what - ever it takes, in all kinds of weather and at gr eat personal risk to make sure you and I can turn the lights on every day.”

Orr hopes that each PowerUP audience member will leave with a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the work of these vital but rarely seen men and w omen. How did Orr de velop the finely tuned interpersonal skills she uses to gain the trust and ultimately win over initially highly skeptical people? Part of it is inherited, says Orr.

“My grandfather could make a best friend from a park bench.”

In her youth, Orr spent four summers with Amigos de Las Americas building latrines in rural Latin American communities.

“I learned a lot there,” she explains. “You came in as an outsider, and had to gain people’s trust and do something together.”

A dancer all her life , Orr studied anthropology then choreography at college. The audience response to a project with campus maintenance workers encouraged her to pursue her vision. In 2001, she founded Forklift Danceworks. The company and its founder have gone on to acclaim and numerous awards. Orr has been named the year’s most outstanding choreographer by The Austin Critics Table three times and the Austin Chronicle’s Best Movement Illuminator in 2012. Forklift has garnered national attention with features in The New York Times, the Washington Post and Texas Monthly, and on BBC Radio, the National Geographic Channel and NPR. In addition to awards and media attention, Forklift recently garnered wider recognition with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

“National support feels really exciting,” says Orr as she faces the most ambitious project of her career. “It’s a real vote of confidence.”

PowerUP performs Sept. 21–22.